Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana says wood toys are a better choice than plastic for babies and toddlers who put things in their mouths.

While families shop for fun toys this holiday season, they should also make sure those toys are safe. On the Pulse sat down with Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatrician and expert in children’s environmental health, to talk about safety in children’s toys and what to look for in gifts for little ones.

Q: Are there materials that parents should avoid for babies and toddlers?

A: Babies and toddlers put a lot of things in their mouths, so plastics are not a good choice for little ones ages 0-3. Plasticizers expose kids to man-made chemicals that affect hormones like estrogen and testosterone. These chemicals can potentially interfere with normal growth and brain development. Children have higher intakes of these chemicals compared to adults because of behaviors like putting things in their mouths and breathing faster than adults.

Q: Do you have any concerns about toys for older children?

A: Cheap, brightly colored jewelry can be a concern. We’ve found that the paint on that jewelry can contain high levels of lead. Exposure to lead at any age and any concentration is not safe. It can affect a child’s brain development and lead to headaches, stomach pain, behavioral problems and anemia.

We’ve also found some art and science kits that contain paints and compounds that are toxic if ingested, so I would urge parents to make sure the toys they buy are age appropriate. The labels on toys indicating age recommendations are a helpful guide.

Q: So what materials would be better for babies and toddlers?

A: Wood toys would be a better choice for young toddlers and babies. We’ve found those toys generally do not contain chemicals that raise concerns. Stuffed animals and soft materials can harbor bacteria, so parents should make sure to wash those toys frequently.

Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana says parents should avoid plastic toys for babies and toddlers because they put a lot of things in their mouths and plastics contain chemicals that can potentially interfere with normal growth and brain development.

Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana says parents should avoid plastic toys for babies and toddlers because they put a lot of things in their mouths and plastics contain chemicals that can potentially interfere with normal growth and brain development.

Q: There are toys marketed as ‘organic’ or ‘natural’. Is there merit to those labels?

A: The term ‘natural’ has no technical meaning and is frequently used as a marketing tool. Most people associate the term ‘organic’ with food, and the government provides regulatory rules for what products can be labeled organic. There are types of textiles such as cotton and other fibers found in toys that can be certified organic.

That said, we have found that even organic food can contain chemical contaminants and we’re researching why that is. The terms ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ don’t hold much weight in determining the safety of toys right now, so I would encourage parents to take those terms with a grain of salt.

Q: What types of toys or features would you recommend?

A: For little ones at an age where they put things in their mouths, the number one takeaway would be to avoid plastics because of chemicals that disrupt normal development at a critical age. Wood toys would be better choices for that age group. Books that are made out of paper or wood fibers are better than puffy plastic books marketed for babies. For other children, my main advice is to make sure that the toys are age appropriate.

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